Change from the inside

As superintendent of one of New York City’s poorest regions, Kathleen Cashin has raised test scores significantly in three years. She isn’t empowering principals to do their own thing, observes the New York Times. She’s making them do her thing, which includes using the Core Knowledge curriculum and teaching students to read non-fiction and write essays.

“We are relentless,” Dr. Cashin said in a recent interview. “The secret is clear expectations. Everything is spelled out. Nothing is assumed.” She provides her principals, for instance, with a detailed road map of what should be taught in every subject, in every grade, including specific skills of the week in reading and focus on a genre of literature every month.

. . . “You need to expand the knowledge base, expand the vocabulary, expand the experience base, and that only comes with good instruction and a rich curriculum,” she said.

Every school in Region 5 uses a graphic organizer to teach children — starting in first grade — to write a five-paragraph essay.

While the city’s reading program focuses on story books, Dr. Cashin layers on lots of nonfiction. And, responding to research showing that impoverished children often lack vocabulary and basic facts, she has adopted a curriculum called Core Knowledge, which teaches basics like the principles of constitutional government, events in world history and well-known literature.

The superintendent is using proven tactics for educating high-need students: Raise and clarify expectations, put money where your goals are, strengthen curriculum, teach knowledge and skills, give students structure. The stress on writing is interesting. In my newspaper days, I interviewed a test specialist who said the most effective way to raise test scores is to develop students’ writing skills; it even helps with math because students learn to think logically and sequentially.

The Times frames Dr. Cashin as an insider who’s “bucking school reform.” The story uses Region 5’s success to criticize the idea that bringing in outsiders and empowering principals are what’s needed to shake up the system. Surely, she’s an insider who’s become a mover and shaker of the status quo. How many strong, innovative leaders survive the district bureaucracy?

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  1. I wonder what’ll happen to the kids in one of New York City’s poorest regions when Kathleen Cashin leaves?

    Will the next superintendent prefer to be unencumbered by the previous superintendent’s policies, and successes, or will merely doing a good job educating kids be satisfying.

  2. wayne martin says:

    Building on Allen’s thought .. this principal’s approach is the same as that used in the Military’s basic training. It’s clearly goal-oriented, success-oriented, and fully executable with virtually no additional resources. In short, Principal Cashin is requiring teachers to do the job they are paid to do, using skills that they obviously have when they were hired.

    In the private sector, it’s a well-known fact that the excellence of an organization starts at the top (the Company president or Division General Manager). When employees know what is expected of them, and find that their managers are relentless in follow-thru, they will perform accordingly.

    Allowing our schools to become “laboratories” for unaccountable academicians has been a disaster for our kids.

    There is little reason to believe that Principal Cashin’s methods will be adopted by the high priests of public education.

  3. Kathleen Cashin is superintendent of a “region” of New York City schools, which means she manages many elementary and middle schools in Brooklyn and Queens. Principals work for her. Very few principals in her region have asked to be included in a new program that gives principals more control over their schools.

  4. wayne martin says:

    Sorry .. read the article too quickly. Comments still stand, however.

  5. Normally, I’d think that micromanagement from such a high level was a bad thing, but when the levels that ought to be taking responsibility for performance (principals and teachers) chronically haven’t… It’s not like finding out what works and making everyone do it is a revolutionary idea.

  6. Markm, you’re assuming it’s micromanagement. I don’t think it is because you’re absolutely correct; micromanagement doesn’t work and this superintendent’s policies do seem to work.

    As Wayne wrote goals are clear, make sense, are tracked and actions are taken on the results. That’s not micromanaging, that’s managing.

    The point of my comment is that Kathleen Cashin’s policies aren’t district policies and when she vacates her office, as she sooner or later must, what happens to those policies? The ones that seem to making a difference in the education of poor kids? The answer is: it’s anyone’s guess. Depends on the quality of the next superintendent and the one after that. That’s a lousy way to run a railroad.

  7. tim from texas says:

    No guess as to what will happen if her schools score too high in the next few years. She’ll be out of there, and probably not of her own volition.